All posts by Carlo Perrotta

Technology is a demanding lover


Digital fabrication is largely predicated on the aim of democratising inventive and creative practices that were previously available only to experts. However, one might say that there is a degree of naivety in the way the notions of ‘creative practice’ and ‘innovation process’ get conflated in the language of making and fabrication.

Creativity is one of the most researched and contentious topics in educational research, and significant uncertainty still surrounds its constitutive elements and its manifestations: does it take unique forms specific to areas of artistic expression and professional practice, or is it a general trait that shifts and adapts according to situational and educational demands?

The debate seems to have partly settled over the last decade, and the current consensus is that whether creativity is domain-dependent or domain-general does not matter: pragmatic educational approaches must take into account that creative behaviours exhibit both context-free and context-dependent aspects.

Even so, an additional layer of complexity is added to the discussion when the languages of creativity and technological innovation get mixed up – there are certainly overlaps, but important distinctions need to be fleshed out and explored further if we are to improve our understanding of ‘making’, viewed less as a novel phenomenon than the 21st century reframing of traditional themes at the intersection of education, techno-romanticism and economic calculation.

The three factors/themes at play are as follows:

    • The economic and socio-cultural revival of ‘tinkering’: something that harks back to hobbyist cultures in the US and Europe, which have been in recent years ‘reframed’ as economically and educationally relevant activities.

 

  • The liberating potential of technologies, which for a few years now have been strongly associated with grassroots creative practices, first in exclusively digital settings, and now spilling over into real, situated contexts thanks to the growing availability and affordability of development tools and ‘rapid prototyping’ devices (e.g. 3D printers).

 

 

  • The ‘silicon valley’ entrepreneurial myth of technological proficiency, pioneering spirit and unbridled, unconventional creativity.

 

These three factors have very much shaped the current digital making ‘discourse’- a discourse which, speaking as a social scientist, feels unsatisfactory both from an educational theory perspective and a technology studies one.

In particular, I feel that the mainstream rhetoric fails to adequately reflect the fraught and deeply social process that from ‘creative ideas’ leads to prototypes and inventions.

My argument is that the socio-technical nature of how design processes move from intangibles to ‘artefacts’ must be examined more closely if we are to develop a more informed notion of making in formal education – including a balanced discussion about its very possibility. Although the literature on making emphasises notions like iteration, debugging and the need to overcome repeated failures, these aspects are always ‘individualised’, that is, reduced to ‘skills’ or aspects of individual character that ‘young innovators’ need to develop. While this is certainly the case (to an extent), there are other equally important aspects missing in the digital making narrative.

Making as a ‘sociomaterial’ phenomenon

The famous philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour has something very interesting to say about technological innovation. He describes technologies as (quite literally), high maintenance lovers that require full, uninterrupted attention and a great deal of propping up, encouragement and cheerleading.

Perhaps, this notion of ‘technological love’ can help us make more sense of the making practices emerging at the crossroads of formal and informal education. Latour’s starting assumption (shared to a greater or lesser degree by others interested in the ‘social shaping’ of technology) is that – historically and sociologically – humans, society and objects (artefacts, machines, etc.) have developed together to form tangled-up, multi-layered networks which evolve, adapt, change and, more often than not, die.

Neither the nature of a ‘novel’ technology, nor the role of social factors on their own determine an innovation’s fate: whether it is successful or gradually withers out.  It’s rather the overlapping negotiations across all elements that constitute a network that may or may not cause the much desired transition of innovations from a state of indeterminacy to one where they begin to actually ‘exist’.

This approach assumes that reality is ‘co-constructed’ and reflects in equal measure the influence of social and material factors. It was used, for example, to describe the historical and technological trajectory that led to the bicycle, as it evolved from earlier versions (i.e. various iterations of the penny farthing) to the artefact we know today, through a process of negotiation, influencing and, indeed, ‘discoursing’.

Rather than being the work of ‘invention’, technological progress requires a commitment to a tireless process through which innovators must mobilise opinions, recruit each other and generate interest. With a modicum of tongue in cheek, Latour suggests that such a totalising commitment can only be described as a form of love: so is there never any respite? Can’t the work of creating interest ever be suspended? Can’t things be allowed just to go along on their own? Isn’t there a day of rest, after all, for innovators? No: for technologies, every day is a working day (…) the innovator’s work is very complicated. Not only does she have to fight on those two fronts, dealing with supports that are removed and parasites that are added; not only does she have to weave humans and nonhumans together by imposing the politest possible behaviour on both; not only does she have to attach nonhumans together; but also she has to know who, among the engineers, executives, and manufacturers speaks for the good actors that need to be taken into account. Should the managing director order a market study – which would speak in the name of consumers – when his technical department is declaring that the project is not technologically feasible without a revolution in microprocessors?

In our own Maker Ed project I observed something remarkably similar, although at a much smaller scale. The process of working with students from a vague design idea to an output of some description was as much based on a playful engagement with tools and hackable devices, as on the constant need to generate interest and secure localised forms of ‘micro-sponsorship’, whilst maintaining high levels of engagement and motivation.

The truly interesting thing – and possibly a valuable contribution of our project to the general understanding of these practices – was the distributed and multidirectional nature of this process.

On the one hand, we encouraged students to inject personal motivations and interests in their designs; we asked them to convince us and their peers that their ideas were interesting and worth pursuing; and we invited them to go online to seek validation and advice from various online communities of makers.

On the other hand, we were doing something very similar in our own relations with schools, teachers, our employers and external funders. Laboriously rekindling interest among actors while trying to secure sponsorship for the project and convincing our interlocutors that this was a worthwhile effort which would generate impact.

It was precisely at the juncture points of all these networked relations and performances that the ‘creative’ process was taking place, not in the heads of students – although the educational value of their engagements with technology is beyond doubt.

It is also undeniable that some of the creative outcomes that emerged from this process were more successful than others – by ‘success’ we mean the coming together of individual, technical and social factors that allowed some ideas to eventually ‘become real’, leaving behind the nebulous stage of sketching and ‘messing about’ (often accompanied by playful banter and mild forms of disruption- see pictures) and acquiring tangible connotations.

Whenever this happened, it led to those magical ‘eureka’ moments which were as uplifting for students as they were for us , as we were all equally implicated and invested in this miniature innovation process.

middle fingerIMG_20160125_112502Bacony goodnessIMG_20160125_114039

So, as we approach the end of the fieldwork with schools in Leeds I begin to see the ways in which a more theoretically informed definition of Maker Education can be articulated, beyond the myth of the inventor and the rhetoric of entrepreneurial creativity.

Above all, I think digital making and fabrication offer the opportunity to develop educational languages that can be used pragmatically to discuss technologies and innovation processes in a more critical fashion, even with younger students.

Fully accounting for the technical side of things (e.g. learning to code, or soldering, or 3D printing and whatnot) but also unpacking the messy, negotiated nature of sociotechnical phenomena.

Part of this ‘new’ language has to be a pedagogical impetus to (sometimes at least) go beyond ‘learning’, by engaging students in educational dialogues about the political/economic/cultural nature of innovation processes.

For instance inviting questions about biases, assumptions and exploring critically the formation of alliances and interest groups around ideas and artefacts – rather than focusing too narrowly on individual work and the linear assessment of skills and knowledge.


	

A tale of digital making

This post was initially published on August 14th 2014 on my personal blog – I am republishing. I think the post still makes some valid points relevant to “digital making”.

 

In 2013 the video gaming press reported the story of a young modder’s quest to break into the industry. You can find it here and here. The trajectory of this young, talented game developer from amateurism to professionalism is remarkable in a number of ways. His journey began, as it is often the case in the video games industry, with increasing degrees of involvement with official modding tools.

When the story broke Alexander (that’s his name) was 19 years old – but it all started much earlier as a passion-driven endeavour across several modding projects, fuelled by the desire to create something as compelling as the games he had enjoyed so much since an early age. The tale is reminiscent of so many others, except Alexander started making headlines when he turned to crowdfunding to finance what had become an ambitious job application. In this YouTube interview he recounts how his love for playing and creating role-playing games led to setting sights on Bethesda, developers of the immensely popular Elder Scrolls games. He came to an agreement with his parents– this is when things get interesting –to not apply to university and rather dedicate himself fully to his project, which over two years evolved into a fully-fledged game expansion enlisting the efforts of other contributors, including 29 amateur voice actors.  The crowdfunding campaign was launched when Alex realised he needed further help to fund a trip to Washington DC, so that he could meet his heroes at Bethesda and convince them he had the skills and the drive to join them.

The tale has a happy ending, although Alexander landed a job not at Bethesda as he had originally hoped, but at the equally prestigious Bungie Studies – creators of the Halo franchise – to work on the upcoming, eagerly anticipated Destiny.

I find this anecdote remarkable because it illuminates – the way only real stories do – a lot of the assumptions and values that can be found – often in an implicit guise – in the area of “digital making”.

In the first place, it effectively conveys the significance of gaming subcultures and practices in providing a template for the field of digital making. The playful and “gameful” nature of digital making has been noted before, but I think it’s worth remembering that since the digital age of the dinosaurs (the early 90s) video games blazed many trails at the intersection of digital technology, the economy  and media literacy: the evolution of shareware alongside the open source movement, the rise of geographically distributed groups of hackers developing “demos” and modifications– a lot emerged from the primordial broth of gaming that contributed to the digital landscape as we know it. The video game industry is also unique in that it’s the only one where private, IP-owning developers release modding tools and free assets alongside their official products. The phenomenon has grown to the point that community involvement has become a fully-fledged business strategy. Take the enormously successful Valve, which nurtures (and profits from) a culture of community-orientated development, data-intensive research and crowdsourcing, or the amazing case study that is Minecraft.

Secondly, it highlights the tension between externally prescribed educational expectations and informal, internally sanctioned labour.  The story shows how individual ambition demanded the interruption of the “conventional” academic path (from school to higher education) in order to be fully realised. Here we have a situation where tangible evidence of productivity – i.e. proof that one can already produce outputs of professional standard – takes priority over evidence of learning – i.e. qualifications and other educational achievements. It appears that competition for jobs in the games industry (and the in the high-tech creative industries in general) is so fierce that the imperative to “stand out from the crowd” translates in a celebration of precocious professionalism and productivity. While I don’t believe this celebration is a problem per se, I see it as symptomatic of a broader shift in the nature and function of childhood and youth (more on this later).

Thirdly, the story draws attention to the accessible and friendly nature of modding toolkits. The striking thing about such tools is that they are simplified versions of those used by the original developers. These are technologies designed to provide fast-tracked access to industry-grade resources, while remaining accessible and user-friendly to novices, who in most cases are young people lacking the specialist background in programming or computer science.

Childhood, youth, education, labour and technology: are we oversimplifying things?  

In his book Between Reason and Experience the philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg describes how the struggle over child labour developed in Victorian intellectual circles during the 19th century. His critique focuses in particular on the deterministic arguments that were made against any form of regulation. Influential and vocal sections of the Victorian establishment brandished economic and technological imperatives to justify the continued employment of children (and women).  A common trope of the time was that the very nature of industrial machines was such that many tasks were better accomplished by workers with short limbs and small hands. Any interference with this “objective” state of affairs was bound to have dire economic consequences, such as productivity slumps, bankruptcy, unemployment and ensuing social tragedies.

Feenberg effectively turns this techno-deterministic argument on its head by showing how Victorian industrial machinery wasn’t inevitably bound up with child labour by some kind of unexplained necessity. Rather, those machines had been often designed from the ground up to be operated by small people, as the famous picture “Girl Worker in Carolina Cotton Mill” (also featured on the cover of Feenberg’s book – see below) clearly illustrates. From this observation Feenberg derives a crucial conceptual point: “technological development is not determining for society but is overdetermined by both technical and social factors”.

Girl working at cotton mill

As we know, child labour was eventually abolished in most Western economies as new machines emerged which didn’t require children to be operated, and a consensus coalesced around notions of childhood as a period of innocence, leisure and unproductive learning that required a mix of moral safeguarding and compulsory instruction – a consensus which, to a degree, has endured into the present. Here’s what Feenberg has to say on the matter:

“A vast historical process unfolded, partly stimulated by the ideological debate over how children should be raised and partly economic. It led eventually to the current situation in which nobody dreams of returning to cheap labor in order to cut costs, at least not in the developed countries”. (p13) (…) today we see children as consumers, not as producers. Their function is to learn, insofar as they have any function at all, and not earn a living. This change in the definition of childhood is the essential advance brought about by the regulation of labour” (p.39)

Feenberg’s outlook is very sociological, especially in the claim that the meaning of childhood – and of the technologies that in different times become “entangled” with it – are not fixed but socially contested and shifting (“overdetermined”).

Going back to my introduction and the following brief analysis, I think Feenberg’s non-deterministic argument can be safely re-deployed to suggest that a range of socio-technical and economic factors have been at work over the last two or three decades to alter once more our understanding of childhood, youth and labour. Digital making, and the subdomain of game development and modding in particular, are for me the main arenas where those meanings are being challenged and contested, and where new values are rapidly coalescing into a widespread, global consensus.

Today’s child as productive, self-motivated, digitally literate worker is obviously not comparable with the uneducated, impoverished and ill-treated Victorian child labourer. Somebody may provokingly suggest that digital technologies are often designed to be “child friendly” and to be operated effectively and productively by inexperienced young users, in a way that uncannily resembles the cotton mills in 19th century factories. But things are infinitely more complex than that, and we should avoid jumping to simplistic and hysterical conclusions.

It seems to me that one amalgamation of factors in particular can act as a conceptual lens through which the latest “assemblage” of childhood, technology and economic imperatives can begin to be understood. This conceptual mixture is the typically post-industrial and post-modern blend of leisure and work. In his study of hobbies in American culture from the mid-nineteenth century, Steven Gelber notes that the boom in leisure activities went hand in hand with the diffusion across all swaths of society of capitalist, self-driven work ethic.

“For a leisure activity to be a hobby it must, above all, be productive. Like work itself, hobbies generate a product and therefore hobbyists have something to show for their time, it has not been wasted. Even if they never even think of selling the products of their leisure, hobbyists know they have economic value, and that knowledge ties their free time to the ideals of the market economy” (p.295)

So, it’s time to summarise things in the attempt to clarify my own thinking and derive one or two points for future consideration.

To begin with, it seems clear that the increasing celebration of precocious productivity and professionalism in the contiguous fields of digital literacy and digital making needs to be seen in the context of a crisis of “traditional” child-centred, educational values. The implications of this crisis are not fully clear to me (and I suspect to many others as well). Our “developed” societies used to place children and young people in a protected (and protracted) state of moratorium, during which they could learn without being productive and explore different identities before choosing a suitable path. This is still true to an extent but is being increasingly challenged and contested.

These challenges and contestations tend to gravitate around two opposite positions, which are ideologically at odds while sharing a common set of epistemological assumptions:  the neoliberal position and the collectivist/democratic one. Are children and young people willingly and enthusiastically subjecting themselves to the logic of capitalist exploitation, having fully internalised and accepted the principles of self-entrepreneurship and constant “productivity”? Or are they appropriating and altering those very principles in highly diverse and unexpected ways, thus contributing to pluralism and hybridising the democratic discourse?

Hence the dilemma: do we celebrate the encroachment of neoliberal values on all aspects of life, including the half-formed subjectivities of children and young people; or do we subscribe to the narrative of individual-meets-collective through networked participation and precocious technological expertise?

For me, the main challenge when trying to make sense of new literacies and practices associated with digital technologies is to acknowledge- and possible move beyond- the above oversimplifications.

End of part 2

 

What’s Maker Education?

‘Making’ is a very popular topic these days. There is plenty of information available on the web so I will just give a few pointers as a form of introduction.

Digital making is the process of creating a product or output. Although it is often associated with software programming, it can also involve modifying, adapting and personalising existing digital or physical tools to make something relatively new or original. According to its many advocates, it’s as much underpinned by technical skills as by the ability to work together, solve problems creatively, and think critically about technologies and what can be accomplished through them.

All of the above applies to digital ‘fabrication’ which, however, also has a distinctive emphasis on the increasing availability of ‘output devices’ such as laser and 3D printers which, although still rather expensive, are beginning to ‘democratise‘ sophisticated design practices. The notion of fabrication as an educational process originated in the US, with some high profile developments like the ‘FabLabs’ (Fabrication Laboratories). For some, fabrication represents the ‘superior’ form of making – especially in formal school settings – as fabricated objects easily become ornamental displays that turn classrooms in creative studios or science museums. By contrast, purely digital artefacts don’t have this power as they exist solely within the confines of a computer screen.

These ideas have been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years. Unsurprisingly, they have been become part of the global ‘STEM deficit’ narrative and have informed policies and programmes to foster ‘innovation skills’ and computational expertise, especially among ‘underrepresented’ groups such as young girls. The number of digital making/coding/fabrication initiatives is mindboggling with state departments, ministries, and large tech corporations the world over sponsoring campaigns, projects and competitions.  Some of these ironically missing the point and unwittingly touting the same gender stereotypes they set out to challenge – see the recent IBM campaign inviting women to #HackAHairDryer.

In some important ways, the movement is the ‘computational’ rehash of traditional tinkering and crafting practices, which have interesting histories of their own largely tied, again, to shifts in gender roles and the growth of disposable time for interest-driven activities. An equally important factor is now established recognition that important differences exist between technological literacy (a general set of skills and intellectual dispositions for all citizens) and technical competence (in-depth knowledge that professional engineers and scientists need to know to perform their work).

A recent review made an attempt to group the Maker Movement into three categories – which in fact overlap significantly but are a good way to start teasing out some interesting aspects for our own project: making as entrepreneurship and/or community creativity, making as STEM pipeline and workforce development, and making as inquiry-based educative practice. Some also praise maker culture as the sign of a growing interdisciplinary attitude to skills development, whereby STEAM (i.e. STEM with addition of Arts) seems to offer a more inclusive and less threatening framing for the development of educational curricula and ‘cool geek’ identities.

In the UK, the maker movement has been largely assimilated in the various ‘learning to code’ initiatives launched after significant changes in the ‘computing’ curriculum in English schools. Some thought provoking accounts of the entanglement of interests and forms of governance surrounding the computational turn in UK education are available.

 

 

Greetings

Greetings!

Welcome to the ‘MakerEdLeeds’ official blog. MakerEdLeeds is a small research study funded by the Society for Educational Studies (SES). As the name (hopefully) suggests, the project is concerned with ‘maker education’ and, more precisely, with how the maker movement is impacting on the cultures and practices of formal education. I am Carlo and I am the project coordinator. Assisting me in the task of ‘making sense of making’ is Claire, who knows much more about coding, fabrication and hacking than I do. To be totally honest I am rather ignorant about designing technology and engineering practices. I am (full disclosure) a social researcher, mainly interested in how this ‘movement’ is being talked about and how it became an ‘educational thing’. Something directly and indirectly shaping curricula and driving investment in hackables, wearables, programmables, microcontrollers and credit-card sized computers. Mostly however I am interested in how regular, non-tech savvy English students and teachers understand ‘maker education’, and where they place it in relation to other interests, commitments and to the barrage of expectations and social pressures competing for their precious time and attention spans.

We are working with two secondary schools in Leeds (Swallow Hill Community College and Carr Manor Community School), running sessions with Y8 and Y9 students, and involving teachers as observers and researchers. This blog’s purpose is to document the project as it progresses until its scheduled conclusion in the summer of 2016. The project officially started in September, and since then we have been busy refining the overall approach and method and examining our own assumptions about maker education. We have also run a few sessions with students and interviewed some teachers, and we now feel more confident about sharing some of the things we are learning. Enjoy… and please leave (constructive) feedback in the comments section!